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New Orleans Economy Still Uncertain After One Year Anniversary

One year after the costliest storm in U.S. history, the city of New Orleans remains a shadow of its former self. Some economists believe it's too early to tell if the city will ever completely recover. But there are signs that the important tourism and convention industry is making a slow comeback.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005, the powerful storm left behind a path of destruction 160 kilometers wide and damage estimated at $80 billion. Critical levees broke in the low-lying city of New Orleans in Louisiana. Eighty percent of the city was flooded. One year later the tourists are slowly coming back.

Marion Lightfoot acts more like a party promoter than a volunteer for a local charity. But she spends a lot of her time along the popular stretch of nightclubs on Bourbon Street because tourists tend to be generous here.

"We pull people over for not partying hard enough, give them a party hat to get them in the mood and ask them for a donation to help feed the needy people down here," says Lightfoot.

One tourist responds, "They just still need a lot of help, they really do. I hate it. It could easily have been any of us."

But in a post-Katrina world, New Orleans residents say fewer than a third of the tourists have come back.

That's because even residents have been slow to come back. Since Katrina, only about 230,000 residents -- about half the city's population -- have returned. Employment has declined 30 percent and low-wage workers are hard to find.

But the region's billion dollar gambling industry found reason to celebrate Katrina's one-year anniversary. The Beau Rivage Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi was the seventh casino to reopen along the Gulf Coast.

George Corchis is the president of the newly renovated 1700-room hotel and casino.

"By us opening our doors, it helps lead the economic spark that's going to ignite the engine down here, the economic engine for the whole Gulf Coast to actually emerge again,” he says. “We're going to help drive the entire economy by getting 4,000 people back to work again."

New Orleans is famous for its jazz musicians. People here believe music -- not gambling -- is the key to restoring the tourist trade. Singer Margie Perez is one of the 7,000 musicians forced out by Hurricane Katrina. "We need musicians to come back, to bring that life back to the city."

New Orleans musicians, such as Aaron Neville, have headlined major benefits in the past year to raise money to build homes for displaced performers.

New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wants to help build a musicians' village in the city of jazz. "They want to create a place for musicians to have a chance to prosper and flourish," he said.

City officials believe visitors will return. As of August, about 27,000 of the city's 38,000 hotel rooms have reopened. And repairs to New Orleans' Convention Center, which sustained severe damage, are expected to be completed later this fall.